The deer rut is in full swing here where I live, and out on the heath the stags are calling, fighting and just generally being splendid. Here are some shots that I got this week – sadly, I couldn’t take any photos of the clashes, as it was too dark with evening coming swiftly on!
Here is a new short film I did, inspired by the gorgeous Suffolk countryside on a beautiful late November morning.
Last night a couple of friends and I went out onto the heath to celebrate the summer solstice. We have a tight-knit little group of friends, who feel a deep and abiding love of this land and who choose to celebrate it with spontaneous ritual. Tired as we were, we decided to forego the planned ritual in the backyard around the firepit and instead sought the wildnerness of the heath.
The clouds came in and it looked ominous, but we just smiled and headed out into the wilds with our drums. We came across small herds of young deer almost straight away, maybe a year old, hanging out together like many teenagers do. We made our way to a small wood of beech and pine trees, just before the rain began to fall softly.
The smell of green and growing things was all around us, the canopy of beech trees waving in the wind above us. Beneath the tall, grey trunks lay the remains of a fallen tree, a perfect altar around which we stood, pulling our drums out of our bags. Without a word we spread out around the altar, pulling drums out of our bags and beginning to drum softly, the heartbeat of the land at dusk.
Warming to the heartbeat, we let it die away into the quiet of the deepening dark. We then took a few deep breaths, allowing the energy of the land and the time of year to infuse our spirit. The drums then began to beat again, a rising rhythm of joy and celebration, ringing out to all who could hear. And indeed, many did hear – a herd of young deer came running over to us, to see what was going on, their inquisitive eyes watching us, then recognising us and resuming their normal business.
We began to chant, a chant to Elen, which merged into a chant of the summer solstice. We sang of the land around us, honouring all that was happening in that moment. Fully immersed in the serpent energy swirling around us at this sacred time of the year, we allowed the awen to flow through us, as vehicles for the inspiration to come through and be expressed in deep reverence and joy.
As the darkness deepened we moved to a lighter patch beneath the beech trees, and began to dance. We dance the sacred round, hand to hand.
We then moved out onto the open heath, the wind picking up and the setting sun glowing in the north-west. The crescent moon appeared every now and then from behind tattered clouds in the west. We spoke of our thanks for our blessings, of the courage to walk into the dark half of the year, of the brilliance and our thanks for the light and for the teachings of the coming darkness.
As the sun disappeared beneath the horizon we made our way home, across the sandy soil and past the field of green barley, harvested last week. Where our bodies were previously tired, smiles now replaced yawns, and our bodies hummed with the wonderful energy of the summer solstice.
May we be the awen.
So, I’m strapping on my snowshoes, minding my own business, when I feel something beside me and see a brownish blur out of the corner of my eye. I think, “Someone’s dog is around from the car park.” I finish doing up one shoe and reach over for the other one, looking up – right into the face of a white-tailed deer. Astounded, I look the other way and there’s another one. And another one. Four suddenly surrounded us, four stealthy ninja deer who came out of nowhere and figured that they outnumbered us, so it should be okay. I had some sunflower seeds in my pocket for the chickadees, which they soon munched up straight from my hand. An absolutely wonderful, magical moment… as quickly as they arrived, they left, silently melting back into the woods. Did I mention that I had been praying to Elen of the Ways every morning? We had a wonderful two days of snowshoeing after that.
She is with me – I can feel Her as soon as I step out the door. She calls to me, she pulls me further away from the houses of humanity, deeper into the wilds; the windswept heath, the dark forest, the bright birch glades. I smile and answer her call with a song in my heart, my footsteps getting lighter and lighter as I head out to meet Her. I walk taller, with more grace, my body flowing and moving without the restrictions that are usually placed upon it. I feel an almost eldritch tingling in my blood – the awen is awakened.
My sense of self fades away, sloughing off in evanescent shades flowing behind me to melt into nothingness. I blend in with my surroundings – wearing faded greens and browns but also my personal space, my nemeton, dissolving into the land around me. This dissolution, this immersion in the landscape brings me closer to Her.
Each step is a sacred prayer. Gentle, aware, heel rolling to toe, I feel the earth beneath my feet. This land is holy ground. The air is sweet, tinged with scents of Spring and I see it reflected in the budding narcissus, the already blooming crocus. The birds have changed their songs to those that speak of warmth and sunshine, soft rains and the greening.
My joy in Her flows out of me and back inwards in an endless cycle. That joy is a quiet joy – there is no need to shout, no need for a fuss. It is pure, it is simple. It is utter awareness of the present moment, and the present moment is all that there is.
I look into the shadows beneath a stand of low pines, and there they are – her children. A small herd, of about a dozen, lie beneath the darkened canopy where no footpaths lie. Here they can rest undisturbed. I greet them ever so softly with my mind – I do not enter into myself to do this – it is merely an honouring and acknowledgement of their beauty without breaking the immersion in the present moment.
I continue on, blessed by the gift of seeing her children. I know that I will see more. I know too that I am of Her, related to Her, to her children. She is within me and I am within her. The deer are within me and I am within them. I only have to open my awareness to this to see the brilliance of this blessed gift. So simple, so easy.
The sunlight is warm upon my skin, the breeze is cool, playing with my hair and scarves, making them dance in the wind. I come to a very special place, and there they are – a herd seventy strong. They see me and wait – I wait also, allowing them the first move. The leaders are then startled by something, and they run across the open grassland from forest cover to the cover of brush, all in a line, along a sacred trackway that they have made over hundreds of years. This is Her trackway, and I watch with soaring spirit as they follow the flow of spirit across the heath.
I go to the birch trees to offer my greetings and leave a gift – a brilliant white egg-shaped stone I found amongst the heather. I then make my way back across the heath, coming across the trackway that cuts the green sward in half. I can still feel their energy – their silent, swift energy running towards the pine trees and dried bracken. As I cross that line, I feel it moving through me, and I swirl it through my soul before letting it run free again along the deer path. I am filled with golden light.
I can feel Her eyes upon me, watching from the forest edge. Her antlered head is thrown back with laughter, Her green eyes dancing even as my soul dances. Silently she shares in my joy and I in Hers, and then she disappears.
I make my way back towards home – there are a couple of deer hidden among the brush near to one of the paths I wish to take. I do not want to startle them – I choose another path. Moving along the forest edge I look up, and see the large herd again, this time ghosting through the trees, running silently and swiftly between the beech trunks, flashes of light and darkness. I bend down where I stand and bring my hands to the rich mossy ground. Looking down, my pale skin shines silver-white in the light against the vibrant green of the soft carpet, as if moonlight, not sunlight shone upon them. I close my eyes and breathe deep into the earth, giving of myself to Her.
Making my way homewards, I am always loathe to leave Her sacred ground. She is always within my heart, and always within my spirit – a sense of wildness, of laughter and play, of wariness and strength. She is muted when indoors, but She is there, deep within my soul even as I greet my Lady of Sanctuary upon entering the home. She smiles and reaches out to her Sister, Nemetona, the Lady of the Sacred Grove.
She is Elen, the wild goddess. I honour Her with all that I am.
To find out more about my writing, please visit my author page at Amazon, where you will details on the No.1 bestseller, The Awen Alone: Walking the Path of the Solitary Druid, as well as new releases such as Zen for Druids and my upcoming book, The Crane Bag: A Druid’s Guide to Ritual Tools and Practices available July 2017.
I went out seeking Elen today. I put on my thermal trousers, got on my ski jacket, slipped on my handwarmers and proudly placed my Winnie the Pooh earmuffs upon my head. Grabbing my bag, I opened the front door with excitement and stepped out into the cold January air.
What a beautiful, cold scent! I love the smell of winter, of snow – there’s nothing quite like it. It reminds me of home, in Canada, where that scent stays for longer than a couple of weeks like it does here in Suffolk. The snows were melting – the pavement was now showing and bits of grass here and there.
Walking down the bridleway, more and more mud started appearing, but I knew that wouldn’t last long. Out on the heath the snows, though they were settling, were still enough to cover everything with a mantle of white. I crossed the track to the riding stables and set out upon the heath with a light heart.
I looked in the first usual spot for the fallow deer – they weren’t there. I went to the second, and again, they weren’t there. I could count on one hand the amount of times I’d been out in the heath and woods and not seen deer, and yet was afraid that this would be another one of those times. A minute later, I knew that it wasn’t.
Straight in my path was the first herd – about 10-15 strong. I saw no stag, but lots of lovely does in all colours, from nearly black to a light fawn colour. They raised their heads, their large ears listening. I took a step forward for a closer look, and they turned and began walking away. I stopped, not wanting to frighten them, but then one doe that very distinct “Eeep!” and then they all turned tail and ran a few hundred yards further down the path.
I continued, watching them melt into the gorse bushes without a sound. I considered following them, but then knew that I should leave them alone and not hassle them. I had a plan – I was going to find one of their spots and sit there, feeling their energy, and hoping that would bring me closer to Elen.
I crossed along the trail to a smaller side track, along the edge of the wood. I knew they often gathered beneath the pines in a small section to the left and all the tracks confirmed my path. I followed, a lone doe under a pine tree about three hundred yards away watching me intently. I stepped on a dried twig, which snapped audibly, and out of hiding another herd ran out to find another shelter.
Again, I felt bad for disturbing the deer, but at least the way was now clear for me to enter into Elen’s realm. I got to the edge of the pine trees and silently asked permission to enter the space. A voice in my head said, “Go quietly,” and so I did.
I shook out my blanket and laid it upon a bare patch of ground where many deer had been under the pine trees. I sat down cross-legged for a few minutes, simply looking around. I realised that I might be here some time, and so I sat with my back against a pine tree, simply listening and looking. The musky scent of deer was heavy in here, mingling with the sharp scent of pine. I breathed deeply, and quieted myself down.
I simply listened, first with eyes shut and then opening my senses, one at a time, to the world around me. The first thing I noticed was the sound of traffic from the road to the village – some days when the air is still, or the breeze blowing in the right direction, the sound is quite loud. This was one of those days. I then heard a plane overhead, a small craft with a growling engine slowly making its way out towards the North Sea. More traffic. My own breathing. I then realised that the birds had stopped chirping. The only sounds I could hear in the middle of the heathland were human sounds.
“You have pushed us further and further,” a voice said in my head. “Our territory is smaller and smaller, and still you encroach upon us, further and further.” I suddenly felt ashamed, not only for my species but also for myself – this was a place for the deer, this was one of their spots. I was intruding upon their space. It was like being found in another person’s front room, making yourself comfortable. I whispered my apology and, scattering some seeds and grains in thanks, packed up my blanket and quickly left that place.
As I made my way back to the path, I saw more deer deep in the wood, shadows flashing between the light spaces behind the tree trunks. “Where is my place?” I asked the heathland, silently. There was no answer.
More deer came out and stood on the path in front of me, leaving the wood. They were curious, and I asked them “Where is my place?” They did not answer. Instead, they melted into the brush once more. I continued down the path, watching more and more deer leave the wood and go out into the heath once more. I saw the white doe, watching me intently from the edge of the gorse, and I whispered softly, “Hail, Elen”. After a moment of watching me, the rest of her herd began to run around the perimeter of the wood, and she eventually joined them. I wished with all my heart that I too could run with the herd, to see what it felt like to be so powerful and yet so light. Without a sound they ran. “Where is my place?” I asked once again, feeling a hint of despair creeping in.
I walked on for ten minutes, and came out to where my path normally would turn out into the open heath. Yet even more deer here, a darker herd with pale underbellies, standing in the snow. The saw me, and sproinged off in the way that only those of the deer persuasion could – bounce bounce bounce. I smiled, realising that everywhere I had turned today, there had been deer.
But still the question remained, “Where is my place?” Walking now in the open heathland, the snow crunching beneath my feet, I pondered the question with a heavy heart. I was not the deer, I was not wild, this was not my place. I was human. Were human places to be my places? I always connected with the wild places before, but knew that this was not my place. So where was my place? A crow laughed from the wood behind me, as I pondered and continued on.
That is the question that is most important to Druids, and what they seek to find most in their spirituality. Where is their place in the wide world? I trudged on, feeling the wind across my cheeks and feeling my bum getting cold. I was living here in the UK, is that where my place was? I was Canadian, is that where my place was? Yet I was out here – where was my place?
My path still followed the deer tracks left in the snow. Everywhere I wanted to go, it seemed I was following deer, lots of them, their little imprints in the snow going in exactly the same direction. I crossed the heath and made my way to the lesser travelled part of the heath, on which I had never seen any humans. This was my special place, where I came to connect with nature and the spirits of place many times before. I hoped that I would not disturb anymore deer, that indeed this was where my place was.
There were no deer to be seen, and yet the path was marked by deer tracks yet again. Less now, but still one or two had followed this way before. I found my footprints from a few days ago, and followed them – they mingled in with deer tracks now. On the edge of the open space, I saw the two lovely oak trees that I had often sat beneath, looking out over the heather and the clear blue sky. I walked to the edge of the bare canopy of the first, and asked permission to share that space. I was welcomed in with warmth. I literally sat within the arms of the oak tree upon my blanket, my back resting upon the trunk, my feet tucked up beneath me.
I closed my eyes for a while, simply listening. I couldn’t hear the traffic so much anymore – I was further away from the road. I distantly heard the church bells chime the hour, though the wind was in the wrong direction and I could not count the bells well enough to tell the time. It did not matter anyway. A stag coughed from the woodland down the way and to the right, and then again. I simply let myself be, opening my nemeton to the world around me, and asked the question once more, “Where is my place?”
I opened my eyes, and an answer came. “Not where is my place,” the oak tree said. “What is my place?” A wave of understanding washed over me – that was it! And here, beneath the boughs of the oak, I knew what my place was – I was a Druid. That was where I fit into the world. It didn’t have a physical space – I could be anywhere in the world and still be a Druid. It was what I was that mattered. The wisdom of the oak once again to the Druid’s rescue.
I lifted my eyes to my footprints just before me, leading to the edge of my blanket, and saw a single set of deer tracks right next to them, leading to this very spot. Not occupying the same place, or even the same time, still they walked the same path. This was the key. Elen of the Ways. Walking the paths, along with others, with respect, compassion and honour – this was what it was all about. Footprints mingling, trodding the same ways, in the same direction, going towards the same thing, branching off to other things, it was the path that was the key. It was The Way that mattered.
I smiled. I got up and thanked the oak for his wisdom, and Elen for showing the the Way. My bum thoroughly cold now, I sat up and the kneeled to leave my offerings of seeds, grain and home baked banana bread beneath the oak’s branches. I replaced my blanket within my bag and headed down the path I had previously trodden.
Again, my footprints were mingled with deer – a minute later new prints emerged, which lead to a dark, sandy patch that showed up through the snow. I followed the prints and found a fox den, to my delight. Recently excavated, they had come out after a long sleep, avoiding the worst of the snow. I could see their sandy pawprints slowly washing clean in the snow as they ventured out from the den. How lovely!
I continued on my way, and eventually came out onto the heath again. I saw the herd once again, with the white doe. She again watched me intently. This time, they made no move to run. I slowly continued on my way and felt a hundred eyes watching me behind the white doe. I turned around and waved a farewell, seeing their inquisitive faces and long necks following my every movement. This time, they did not run.
I made my way home, following horse tracks and deer tracks, rabbit, fox and blackbird tracks. All these Ways, all these paths, all these markers that were left behind in the snow to remind me of the shared path.
I honour you, Elen of the Ways.